Over the last few years, Europe has seen the largest influx of migrants since World War II. As the Syrian civil war continues into its fourth year, Europe has seen over 3 million new migrants and can expect more in the foreseeable future. Unlike older instances of mass migration, these refugees have a tool that can help make their journey a bit more manageable- their smartphones.
Smartphones allow the refugees to make informed decisions about their travel plans. Refugees of an older era would essentially have to make their journey blind or go on faith when trusting traffickers or travel arrangements, but the Syrian refugees can weigh their options before deciding their next move.
Social media sites such as Facebook serve many purposes for those who were forced to leave already or those who are considering the journey. Facebook groups offer advice to those who are contemplating leaving Syria as well as real time updates for those who are currently traveling (things such as where to find clean drinking water, which trafficking groups or officials to trust, where to cross a border to avoid arrest, etc.). Some Facebook groups even serve the purpose of connecting refugees to traffickers, which can be either a blessing or a curse depending on the trafficker.
Google maps and GPS apps have also helped refugees navigate their way through various countries, terrains, and landscapes. Because the journey is so diverse and is far from a set path, migrants are relying on their phones to help them find the best routes through both rural and urban settings. The IRC has even cell phones for refugees one Syrian’s route to Germany that was influenced by his GPS use.
We all understand how wonderful smartphones can be as a survival tool, particularly for gathering information on the go. One of their most important uses, however, is keeping people connected. Migrants have been using apps such as WhatsApp, Skype, and Viber that don’t require normal cellular calling or SMS capabilities in order to keep in touch with family and friends- and for an undertaking as dangerous as this, this ability is all too important.
One of the questions many people have about refugee reliance on smartphones is simple: how do they charge their phones? Even a normal civilian that is welcome in their own country can sometimes have a hard time finding a place to charge their phone, let alone hundreds of thousands of refugees that are met with opposition and hostility in various parts of Europe. Opportunistic businesses charge outrageous premiums for using their outlets, but the fact remains that there simply isn’t enough power access available to refugees. Luckily, aid-workers are addressing this problem.
Volunteer workers in Budapest, Hungary have taken a novel approach to providing refugees with power and free wifi in the form of battery powered mobile hotspots and charging strips in backpacks. While there are no long-term solutions at the moment, these makeshift charging and wifi stations can provide a necessary commodity to many refugees who are stuck in Budapest.